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Benjamin R. Barber Headshot

Horses and Bayonets

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It was the 21st versus the 20th century in last night's foreign policy debate. Never was the contrast between a party wedded to the past and a party anticipating the future more evident. Governor Romney's obsession with Cold War hostility to Russia and with the declining number of naval ships in the American armada was compellingly addressed by the president, who suggested the Governor might not understand how the modern military works. You don't count ships to measure the navy's 21st century fighting capabilities any more than you worry about the vanishing of horses and bayonets in measuring a modern army 's potential.

War has changed and so have the priorities of defense spending. But not even the president has followed his prudent logic to its conclusion. Obama and the country need to recall that it's not just horses and bayonets that were rendered obsolete by barbed wire and trenches in World War I, it was also those trenches and barbed wire (fortifications like the Maginot Line) that were rendered obsolete by tanks and aircrafts in the German Blitzkrieg of World War II. Nukes made big conventional war itself less viable and for the half-century standoff with the Soviets, nukes and MAD (mutually assured destruction) left Cold War as the only real option.

Today, terrorism and non-state actors continue to impact the character of war, again leaving once omnipotent weapons systems far behind.

  • Think of 9/11: nineteen terrorists hiding out inside the U.S. hijacking airliners and turning them into bombs. No multi-billion dollar missile defense system of the kind Ronald Reagan wished for would have made a difference. Aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines meant nothing.
  • Think of a roadside bomb placed by a "civilian" warrior in Afghanistan: how many M-1 tanks or armored Humvees would it take to preempt the planting of such a device? Or are they just apt targets?
  • Think of suicide bombers: can a B-1 bomber save a platoon or a crowd of civilians from a zealot with a suicide vest?
  • Think of Osama bin Laden's demise: It was superb intelligence and a couple of teams of Navy Seals along with three choppers (one that malfunctioned) that finished off al Qaeda's leader.
  • Think of terrorist cells in Yemen or Somalia: drones today do better in preempting terrorism than squadrons of F-14s or divisions of infantry.

In military history, asymmetrical war has always been the challenge. Today, the irony is that the most pernicious challenges to our national security are not armadas of ships or planes, or Blitzkrieg invasions by large standing armies. There are no more "world wars," and if in the nuclear age we stumble into one, it will be the last war ever. Instead, we face regional conflicts, civil strife, militia warfare, terrorism and guerrilla operations (often all at once, as Syria or Libya today!) -- along with campaigns by criminal drug syndicates with their own mini-armies.

It is no longer superpower states such as Germany or Russia or China that threaten the peace, but weak states, rogue states and failed states. The asymmetry between traditional military macro-power and the micro-tactics of terrorists, hackers and religion-driven martyrs has become our greatest military challenge.

So President Obama needs to follow his prudent post-modern military logic to its end. That logic will show why slashing our bloated Defense Department budget is feasible and desirable, will demonstrate that perhaps one third of DOD costs are devoted to obsolete or unnecessary or inefficient weapons systems, systems that were designed for an era of warfare in which powerful states crossed national borders to instigate regional or global wars that is long gone.

Lean and mean is not a rationalization for reduced spending but a recipe for effective national defense. However, it results in reduced spending and can contribute mightily to balancing the budget and fixing the deficit). If, then ,we take the logic of horses and bayonets and apply them to bombers, battleships and nukes -- no matter who wins the election, Osama-killer Obama or Peacenik Romney -- we can lick the debt, improve our defense capabilities and guarantee a safer world.